PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: "Julie Johnson" Doesn't Add Up Lesbianism, Algorithms, Can't Rescue Pointless Plot
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/01.27.01) — The most awkward moment of Sundance 2001 — the sort in which a theater full of people applauds to fill uncomfortable space — came during the final seconds of “Julie Johnson,” Bob Gosse‘s female awakening fiasco starring Lili Taylor as a Hoboken housewife who liberates herself through computer science, thereby unleashing her latent lesbianism as she ponders fractals and algorithms.
“Julie Johnson” leaves its befuddled audience wanting so much more from its scant plot that many at the Thursday night premiere screening in Park City seemed to think the film had broken down. It stutters to a premature halt as Taylor escapes the shambles of her life through stargazing. But where on earth is the third act? Doesn’t Julie get any closure? The message seems to be that you have to lose everything before you can find yourself, but what happens when the filmmakers lose their plot? A problematic movie at every conceivable level, the well-intentioned but disastrously executed “Julie Johnson”seems destined to wallow in indie oblivion.
Based on a play by Wendy Hammond about a blue-collar housewife and mom (Taylor) with low self-esteem who decides to enroll in a computer science course after her boorish police officer husband (Noah Emmerich) forbids it, “Julie Johnson” feels pre-approved for the Oprah crowd with its feel-good message of self-possession and betterment through adult education. Quiet, mousy, dutiful Johnson (who hides copies of Omni and Scientific American in kitchen drawers so she can study while she cooks and cleans) enrolls in a computer science course taught by cuddly Spalding Gray, who convinces the late-bloomer to pursue a GED certificate so she can apply to a local technical college. Torn between remaining loyal to her children and realizing her academic dreams, Julie decides not just to pursue the degree, but to unleash her inner lesbian while she’s at it.
America’s favorite rock widow Courtney Love brings unexpected credibility to “Julie Johnson”as the title character’s trashy but grounded best friend and reluctant lover, Claire, a steakhouse waitress with low ambitions who’s prone to slutty outfits and impromptu pep talks. It’s Claire who finally convinces Julie that she’s smart enough to return to school. Stuck in an unsatisfying marriage herself, Claire finds her own life transformed after Julie kicks her husband out of the house, prompting Claire to leave her husband and move in with Julie and her two sitcom kids.
Best friends since high school, Julie finally gains the necessary courage to confess her desires for Claire, who’s receptive, even curious, over Julie’s lesbian leanings. But when Julie tries to lure Claire into a stable, nurturing relationship, and when the neighbors begin to gossip about the close friends’ blossoming bond, Claire retreats for the safety of her unhappy marriage, leaving Julie in the lurch.
The film suggests that Julie might be an unrealized genius (never mind a lesbian). In one scene her professor marvels at her ability to sit down at a computer terminal and write a complex algorithm in a matter of seconds. But the story is so malnourished that we’re never given the satisfaction of seeing Julie truly realize her dreams. She’s introduced to a Princeton professor during a Manhattan cocktail party who seems captivated by her abilities. While it’s intimated that he may be in a position to help her realize her dreams somewhere down the road, that’s really as far as it goes.
The most egregious flaw in “Julie Johnson” is that we come to identify with Courtney Love’s character more than Lili Taylor’s. Claire’s a brash New Jersey broad in hot pants and plunging necklines who’s like a kindler, gentler version of Love’s real-life rock and roll rebel persona. It’s hardly a surprise that Love has settled into something of a successful acting career, considering that she’s spent so much of her own life playing different roles, reinventing herself whenever people stop paying attention. How disappointing when an otherwise likeable character such as Claire turns out to be as much of a shrew as Love suggests she might be in real life. Maybe she isn’t an actress after all.
It’s too bad that the sexual-awakening subplot of “Julie Johnson”receives such short shrift, because it’s the most fascinating aspect of an otherwise incomplete and incoherent script that feels like it was pieced together with scotch tape. Granted we’re dealing with working class New Jersey housewives here — their hesitancy and shame is understandable. But Julie’s intriguing courtship of Claire seems thrown into the story as an afterthought — anything to enhance this movie’s underdeveloped plot.